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A Risk Worth Taking, страница 1

 

A Risk Worth Taking
 


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A Risk Worth Taking


  He can’t outrun himself…

  Legionnaire Jamie Armstrong lives in the shadows. A medic haunted by his mistakes, he knows better than to hope for redemption. But his latest mission brings a threat he doesn’t see coming—an attraction as irresistible as it is dangerous. Hacker Samira Desta is a woman he swore to forget, but as a key witness to a deadly conspiracy, Samira is his to protect.

  But the woman he rescues might be the one who saves him

  After a year in hiding, Samira’s worst fears come true when her cover is blown and the unlikeliest of allies comes to her aid—the secretive Scot with whom she shared one unforgettable night. Hunted by lethal forces and losing the battle against their desire, Jamie and Samira make a desperate play to take the fight to their enemy—but those at greatest risk of ruin may be themselves...

  Rave reviews for Brynn Kelly’s Edge of Truth

  “Edge of Truth has it all—danger, desire, and heart-pounding action. Brynn Kelly captures you on page one and doesn’t let go!”

  —Laura Griffin, New York Times bestselling author

  “Brynn Kelly will capture your heart and leave you breathless in this passionate, harrowing novel of romantic suspense. A must-read!”

  —Brenda Novak, New York Times bestselling author

  “Dark and deep—a twisting romantic suspense that will grab you and never let go.”

  —Cynthia Eden, New York Times bestselling author

  “Edge of Truth is a breathtaking romantic thriller. The characters are so real they leap off the page, the love story is hot and the action never lets up. I couldn’t put it down.”

  —Karen Robards, New York Times bestselling author

  “Kelly is rapidly demonstrating that she is highly skilled at developing intricate stories that are packed with intrigue and jeopardy, while also rich with human emotion. This book is a nonstop thrill ride....Kelly is proving to be a gift to the romantic suspense genre!”

  —RT Book Reviews, Top Pick!

  Brynn Kelly

  A Risk Worth Taking

  Also available from Brynn Kelly and HQN Books

  Deception Island

  Edge of Truth

  Forbidden River (ebook novella)

  A Risk Worth Taking

  Contents

  CHAPTER ONE

  CHAPTER TWO

  CHAPTER THREE

  CHAPTER FOUR

  CHAPTER FIVE

  CHAPTER SIX

  CHAPTER SEVEN

  CHAPTER EIGHT

  CHAPTER NINE

  CHAPTER TEN

  CHAPTER ELEVEN

  CHAPTER TWELVE

  CHAPTER THIRTEEN

  CHAPTER FOURTEEN

  CHAPTER FIFTEEN

  CHAPTER SIXTEEN

  CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

  CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

  CHAPTER NINETEEN

  CHAPTER TWENTY

  CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

  CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

  CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

  ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

  EXCERPT FROM FORBIDDEN RIVER BY BRYNN KELLY

  CHAPTER ONE

  Tuscany

  A DOZEN TINY spiders tiptoed up Samira Desta’s nape. She planted a placeholder finger on her file of evidence and blinked as her focus adjusted over the rolling red and gold fields, their folds in charcoal shadow like an unshaken quilt. Cypress trees: check. Cows: check. Paranoia: check. She rubbed her neck. Nothing there, of course. Not a Sangiovese grape out of place in paradise.

  The buzz of a motor curled in on the breeze, echoing off the hills. Her breath stalled. Vehicle? Helicopter? Drone strike? What did a drone strike even sound like?

  She tsked. A droning, presumably. And by the time you noticed it, would it be too late, like seeing a tsunami or hearing the rumble of an earthquake?

  A red motor scooter bobbed up over a distant rise and ducked away under the next, appeared again, disappeared, appeared...rising and falling from view like a surfer in a swell. The rider wore a high-vis jacket. Il postino. Samira exhaled. Stand down, Sherlock.

  Or could it be a mercenary masquerading as a postal worker? That would be a great cover.

  Yes, she was losing it. Too much time alone.

  Low morning sun bathed the courtyard but the air channeling down the neighbor’s vines was cool around the edges, sending leaves rattling and scratching across the terra-cotta tiles. From the speakers inside the rented cottage, Carole King and her piano were working through their problems. “It’s Going to Take Some Time.”

  No kidding, Carole.

  Coffee fumes wove into the decaying earthy scent of fall. Autunno, here. The world didn’t get more breathtaking but the beauty didn’t hit Samira in her chest as it might once have. One day, when all this was over, maybe that little skip would return.

  With a sigh she tightened her ponytail and returned to the document. The letters seemed to float off the page and rearrange, like they were trying to edit themselves. Ah, who was she kidding? She’d memorized every word of her evidence for the special counsel investigating Senator Tristan Hyland’s terrorist links. No matter how often she revised, it got no stronger than circumstantial and hearsay. And no wonder people weren’t believing it. A wildly popular war hero orders a terror attack in Los Angeles that kills thousands, for political and financial gain? Preposterous. He could still wriggle out, proclaim it was a conspiracy to end his presidential ambitions—if Samira even got to testify before suffering a conveniently fatal accident, like her fiancé had.

  Note to self: Google the sound of a drone strike.

  Or would that send an alert to a gray-faced analyst in a monitoring center in some industrial park in America? A company with an ominously banal name—Tactical Security Associates or Virtual Monitoring Solutions. She wants to hear a drone strike? We’ll give her a drone strike.

  No, she really wasn’t winning the concentration battle. She heaved the document shut, the echoing slap sending a cow thundering across a neighboring field. Scraping the chair backward, she pressed her knuckles into the middle of her back and arched. For many months it’d felt like a bubble of air was trapped there. She’d writhed and wriggled, twisted and stretched, bent backward over innumerable sofas and chairs in a blur of rented cottages and apartments, but the satisfying pop just wouldn’t come. If Latif were alive he’d gather her in his arms and yank her tight around the ribs. Just the right spot, just the right angle, just the right pressure. Her back would crack, the tension would release, she’d take a deep breath, they’d kiss...

  She gave up on the back crack. Wishful thinking. The bubble had been wedged there since she’d read the newsflash about “collateral damage” in a drone strike in Somalia and known by the snap in her heart what it meant.

  Nineteen months since his death. Thirteen months since she’d become a witness in the case against Hyland and disappeared underground on a self-imposed protection program. Thirteen months of fleeing from hiding place to hiding place, living under a series of assumed names, rarely reaching more length or depth in her conversations than “un cappuccino, per favore,” “un café crème, s’il vous plaît,” “ich möchte etwas kaffee.” Her Continental grand tour, from Africa to France, then Switzerland, Slovakia, Croatia... She traced a finger around the lip of the coffee cup. Where had she gone after that? The Milan apartment? The former monastery near Barcelona? All private, secluded rentals that didn’t require ID. Cash up front to cover a couple of months’ rent for a “writing retreat.” All the time with that bubble lodged in her spine, that prickly sensation of being watched. She shuddered.

  Still,
she had no right to complain—about anything. How much would Latif love to come back for this one day, as hollow as it was? Sunshine, countryside, starlings... It would all be pretty cool to a dead person.

  She shook a twig off her foot and hunkered into her scarf. La couleur de minuit. A memory triggered—crunching through leaves alongside the River Loire, the scarf around her neck, hand in hand with a man she shouldn’t have been hand in hand with. But his palm was dry and warm and rough, and his voice was deep and mellow, and her grief was raw, and his kiss was...

  A man who shouldn’t return to her thoughts as often as he did. Like right now, virtually pulling up a chair alongside her and nuzzling her nape, murmuring phrases that hadn’t been covered by her French tutors, his Scottish lilt blending with his throaty French R.

  She tugged the scarf free and twisted its smooth cotton length through one loose fist, silver threads flashing in the deep violet. Memory or fantasy? She’d been living in her head so long...

  Either way, it was unfair to force Latif’s fading ghost to compete with the all-too-vivid memory of Jamie. And futile. Both were entombed in her past and would stay there. She hadn’t replaced Latif with Jamie. Jamie had been a...what? Fling? Escape? Lapse of judgment? All of the above? It might as well have happened in her imagination, except for the scarf he’d bought her from the market below the Château de Langeais and the voice in her head, and the very real confusion twisting beneath her ribs. If it wasn’t grief over Latif, it was guilt over what she’d felt for Jamie. Still felt.

  Was that really a year ago?

  Her phone alarm trilled through the Bluetooth speakers. The A-Team theme. She caught the phone as it vibrated off the wrought iron table, and swiped it silent, her heart skipping. The music restarted. The scooter had turned onto her road—a dead end she shared with a boutique family vineyard and an organic farm—triggering the first of her motion sensors. She threaded the scarf around her neck and knotted it. The engine tapered from a hum to a chug as it neared her long driveway. Probably nothing, but she gathered up the file and the coffee cup.

  The scooter disappeared behind a strip of strutting cypresses, its engine slowing, the sound sharpening as it turned. Samira’s pocket jumped. The second alarm—MacGyver. The scooter was in her driveway. With a few more swipes, she muted the alarm and Carole, midclimax of “It’s Too Late.” She grabbed her backpack from where it leaned against a whitewashed wall just inside the French doors—packed, always packed. She hadn’t left as much as a toothbrush out in a year. The scooter whined as it climbed the gravel drive. Breath catching, she drew the doors closed from the outside, coaxing them flat with her fingernails, and stole behind the fat trunk of an oak across the courtyard.

  Probably just mail for a previous tenant, but the fewer locals she encountered, the better. The only people who could feasibly mail her anything—and only through a trusted, off-the-radar intermediary—were her parents and the journalist who’d broken the story a year ago about Hyland’s connection to the LA attacks, Tess Newell. Her friend Tess Newell. Because she was seriously short of those. And they knew not to contact her unless it was vital. Too many ways to tip off the enemy.

  She leaned against the trunk, tracking the scooter’s progress by its noise as it rolled into the turning bay and idled. Over the fence, several white cows stopped chewing and stared at Samira. She made a face but they didn’t get the hint. Footsteps crunched. A knock on the thin door frame, rattling the glass inserts. A pause. Another rap. More footsteps. The hiss of the rider reclaiming the seat, and then the scooter decrescendoed down the drive. Samira waited several minutes then pushed off the trunk, strands of her hair pinching as they caught on the bark. A white stamped envelope lay beside the door.

  The alarms triggered in the opposite order as the scooter resumed its rounds. Oh, for a life that simple. Deliver the mail in the morning, idle away the afternoon and evening eating panzanella and drinking Chianti...

  Huh. Was any life really like that, or was this a case of greener grass in the other field—or whatever that English saying was? Her English was getting rusty. Heck, her native Amharic was rusty. Even her Italian wasn’t getting a workout.

  The letter was addressed to her—at least, to one of her aliases. She scraped her teeth over one side of her lower lip as she crouched over the plain business envelope. Typewritten label, Helsinki postmark. Her shoulders settled. The trusted friend of her mother who was acting as her emergency contact—a retired former diplomat who had no sympathy for Samira’s enemies but was comfortably off their radar. Samira sent the woman a breezy postcard in a fake name every time she changed address. Laughably old school, but the irony of the twenty-first century was that every government, agency and criminal organization was too busy tracking electronic communication to bother with opening people’s mail. If it didn’t require a cryptographic exchange, who gave a damn?

  Samira perched on a courtyard chair and tore open the envelope. Inside was another envelope, plain and brown. Inside that, like a nest of matryoshka dolls, a thick postcard and an unaddressed and unsigned note in her mother’s handwriting, in Italian, for good measure. Always thinking of you. Kisses. It would have killed her mother to leave it at that but Hyland would be a fool not to have her parents under surveillance, even at the Ethiopian Embassy in Ottawa, and their diplomatic protection went only so far. Her mother would have had an aide drop it in a distant mailbox. Sudbury, according to the postmark. Samira had been there once—it had to be a five-hour drive from Ottawa. She ran her thumb over the familiar looped handwriting, the bonded paper thick and rough.

  The postcard showed a gleaming Arc de Triomphe. Who did she know in Paris? She flipped it. It was also unsigned, the handwriting unfamiliar, addressed to her mother at the embassy.

  Hey, Janis, it began. Samira frowned. She hadn’t used that avatar since grad student days at Brown. Three scrawled lines followed. I have a gift that will change your life. Just what Jagger was looking for. Can’t wait to see your face when I give it to you. A good excuse for you to visit—soon! Luv, Vespa.

  Samira tapped the edge of the postcard on the table. Vespa was the avatar of Charlotte Liu, her English university roommate from Brown—the Latin name for her favorite British football team. Jagger was Latif. The aliases they’d used playing “Cosmos” during all the late nights they should have spent studying.

  It could only be Charlotte. No one else knew those names. Samira’s mother must have guessed the postcard was for Samira, that it was important enough to forward.

  When had she last heard from Charlotte? Not since Latif had turned whistle-blower and the two of them had dropped off the earth, but Charlotte had to know he was dead—she worked for Britain’s biggest spy agency. Why contact Samira now? And why the secrecy?

  The oxygen seemed to thin. Only one “gift” would change Samira’s life for the better—the elusive evidence that would secure Hyland’s prosecution. Then he’d have nothing to gain from her death—the cat would be out of the cage. Box. Crate. Whatever. Just what Jagger was looking for. The additional evidence Latif was chasing when he died? If anyone could get access to damning evidence, a GCHQ surveillance analyst could, but she’d have to be very careful how she shared it.

  The card was postmarked in Paris two months ago. The white envelope was stamped a week later in Helsinki. It’d probably spent the seven weeks since stacked in some postal holding center in Italy. Charlotte could have delivered it on foot in that time—though when she’d mailed it Samira had been holed up in... Denmark? Had Charlotte crossed the Channel from London just to post it, assuming that Samira’s parents would know her whereabouts?

  Whatever she’d found, it had to be big. Charlotte could be jeopardizing her job—and her life—and she was as cautious as Samira. Latif had been the risk-taker of their geeky trio.

  Samira rubbed her thumb over the glossy Paris street and leaned back. The scooter was out of sight, its engine a fa
int hum. Suddenly that view looked a whole lot less suffocating. Can’t wait to see your face when I give it to you. A good excuse for you to visit... Meaning, Samira had to collect it in person from Charlotte’s London flat. But going to London meant crossing a border—with an untested fake passport. Having it as a precaution for an emergency was one thing. Using it to break into Fortress Britain?

  Could Samira get Tess to collect the “gift,” seeing as Samira would only be handing it along, assuming it was the evidence they needed? Charlotte would know who Tess was, after all the coverage about her scoop on Hyland. Tess would know what to do. She was in contact with the special counsel investigating Hyland, she had the media at her bidding, she was a folk hero in certain circles in the United States—and public enemy number one in others—and she had ten times Samira’s courage. Like that was hard.

  Not forgetting that Tess had a bulletproof French Foreign Legion boyfriend backed up by a squad of Legionnaire friends who’d do anything for each other. Like escort a stranger into hiding. And look after her a little too well.

  Guilt poked Samira in the ribs.

  Calm down, Conscience. It’d been an error of judgment at a stressful time that’d rightfully ended, abruptly and awkwardly.

  So why had she thought about him every day since?

  She hissed in a breath through her teeth. Because she had too much time to think.

  Anyway. Small steps, and none of them involved Jamie... Jamie... Hell, she didn’t even know his surname. The others had just called him “Doc.”

  Anyway. First, she had to break comms silence and contact Tess. Tess would come up with a plan that bypassed Samira, hopefully. She fished her Italy guidebook from her backpack—because pages read in a book couldn’t be tracked like pages on the web—and chose an internet café in Perugia, a two-hour drive in the opposite direction from the last one she’d used to contact Tess. Though they were communicating rarely and via a secure, coded system, they’d defaulted to extreme precautions after Samira’s carelessness had revealed Latif’s location to Hyland.

 
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